Susan Sarandon in The Calling
Police procedurals are really having a tough time on the silver screen. Once upon a time, the cinema was where you’d go to see the stuff you couldn’t see on TV. Law & Order wouldn’t show you the gory crime scene, but The Silence of the Lambs would. You knew that you could depend on the multiplex to show you the stuff that TV couldn’t even dream of. They took your favourite crime novels and gave them life.
Times have changed, however, and now TV is creating shows like True Detective that take on a breadth and scope that a three-act-structure and one hundred minutes can’t quite compete with. The Calling is the kind of movie that suffers the most from this kind of paradigm shift: moderate in scope, well-directed, filled with talented actors but working with a script that rehashes things we’ve seen so often before, the only way you could make it fresh again is by truly making us live with these characters.
Susan Sarandon is Hazel Micallef, the head detective in the small, sleepy Ontario town of Port Dundas. Hazel has had substance abuse problems since an unspecified traumatic incident in her youth; she lives with her elderly mother (Ellen Burstyn) and gets fucked up every night, which isn’t much of a problem since nothing much happens in town. On a routine call one day, she discovers the dead body of a local senior citizen who appears to have been ritualistically murdered, her face contorted into a grimace. Alongside her second-in-command (Gil Bellows) and a wet-behind-the-ears transfer (Topher Grace), she sets about discovering who is running around rural Ontario committing heinous murders as the bodies pile up.
There’s a lot to like in The Calling, though admittedly a lot of what there is to like you probably already liked elsewhere. The easy-going rapport between the cops is reminiscent of Fargo (both the movie and the show) as are the snowy rural landscapes; the performances are uniformly terrific, even though Québécois folk singer Kevin Parent has a very distracting supporting role as an eccentric medical examiner (!!).
The film takes a gamble that never really pays off by revealing the identity of the serial killer early on in the film, but the ensuing police work has an organic inefficiency to it that feels genuine (if you are one of those people who beats their head against the wall because you figured out something before the characters did, best stay away from this one). For all its strengths, The Calling is nevertheless rooted in a tiresome mess of occult religious mumbo-jumbo (some kind of shit about 12 disciples — Donald Sutherland is on hand to lend some gravitas and exposition as an elderly priest) that feels instantly unoriginal and repetitive.
“But, Alex,” you say, “True Detective is filled with religious occult mumbo-jumbo, and you just said two paragraphs ago that it was great.” This is true. It’s also unfair to compare a film to a TV show; after all, if I started to complain that a movie wasn’t enough like a sonnet or a sculpture, I’d be laughed off the Internet. The fact remains that some stories have found their niche, and this kind of procedural serial killer thriller has become old hat in the same way that the kids no longer go dancing to the big band sound of Tommy Dorsey. It’s nobody’s fault, really — if The Calling was the pilot for a new HBO show, I’d keep watching. As its own self-contained narrative, however, it just doesn’t deliver. ■
The Calling is in theatres now